So What is it? Material Culture Studies Unmasked
Definitions of Material Culture and Selective Bibliography
Following a workshop at the University of Delaware on learning through objects, participants were asked to write brief definitions of material culture and provide a list of five texts they consider critical to the study of the field. Here are responses from eight participants.
We invite you to add your definitions and citations as well by email@example.com
Definitions of Material Culture
The things we make reflect our beliefs about the world; the things around us affect the way that we understand the world. There is an unending circularity to this that implies less a circle and more a kind of wheel moving. --Lance Winn, with respect to Foucault
Material culture is the history and philosophy of objects and the myriad
relationships between people and things. --Bernie Herman
Material Culture Studies opens the question of the “thingness” of things—what is matter? How does it produce meaning, yield uses, constitute worlds? Material culture studies attends to the situation of “things,” their accreted associations and meanings as they are successively performed. Working with “things” is so rooted in experience, so tuned to how we perceive the world, so inductive, that teacher and student become fellow observers / users, equally able to respond to the strangeness of this “thing,” before them, now. “Things” matter and the knowledge they offer us transforms our sense of the habit worlds we live and make. --Julian Yates
My idea of material culture studies is a quite literal one: I see us engaged in in-depth studies of the materials of human cultures--of anything (any/thing/) for how it reflects and constructs the culture of which it is a part.--Marcy Dinius
The American Institute for Conservation's definition for "cultural property" can loosely substitute for material culture. “The legacy of our collective cultural heritage enriches our lives. Each generation has a responsibility to maintain and to protect this heritage for the benefit of succeeding generations. Conservation is the field dedicated to preserving cultural property -
objects, collections, specimens, structures, or sites identified as having artistic, historic, scientific, religious, or social significance - for future generations. -AIC website----Jae Gutierrez
The rise of mass consumption was accompanied by a proliferation in objects and the multiplication of meanings, practices, and “needs” associated with these things. Material Culture Studies helps us to think about the objects, and the cultural, political, and economic systems that created them.--Will Scott
Material Culture is the unpacking or mining of both historic and everyday objects to find the embedded ideas and concepts that define the surrounding society.— Joyce Hill Stoner
Material culture is the relationship between people and things.—Arwen Mohun
Further notes from Arwen: Material culture scholars ask questions like: how do historical actors and present day people make and use objects like houses, books, and paintings? What did those objects mean to specific historical actors at specific moments in time? How might these meanings change over time? How have authors and artists used material
things as symbols in art and literature? How do the physical characteristics of artifacts— the paper a magazine or newspaper is printed on, the cloth a garment is fashioned from—affect interpretation?
Some material culture scholars incorporate the answers to these kinds of questions into books and articles for scholarly audiences. Others incorporate them into the process of making or conserving physical objects and textual artifacts. Or work to engage the general public in appreciating the history of material objects.
Why does material culture studies matter (and who does it matter to?)
It matters because we all live in a material world, but are educated in intellectual traditions that too often abstract, ignore, or decontextualize physical objects and processes.
Material culture studies promotes:
- material citizenship--recognition that things have politics and that our choices about how we
make, buy, use, and view things are important aspects of global citizenship
- stewardship—skills to select and care for culturally significant things
- insightful new scholarship on the history of how people have made and used objects and shaped their built environments
- creativity in the creation of material culture
- common ground between the public and the academy —in K-12 education, in museum settings, as well as university classrooms and study spaces associated with various collections on this and other campuses.
Material Culture Studies intersects with Women's Studies in fascinating ways. In every culture or community-- national, ethnic, religious, or other sort-- women have been and continue to be defined by notions of "femininity," and those notions are almost always embodied by and made visible through clothing, as both material (in all senses of the word) and as ideological choices— Margaret Stetz
Critical Texts in the Field of Material Culture Studies
From Lance Winn:
Marx, The Communist Manifesto (gives us the language to critique material)
McLuhan, Understanding Media (apologies for claiming such an overused text
but "the medium is the message"...e=mc....squared"
De Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (impossible where to even
begin, start with things as an accumulation of energies)
The Electronic Disturbance by The Critical Art Ensemble (material is often
now immaterial and yet somehow still affects us)
Formless: A Users Guide by Krauss and Bois (Like all the above, they equip
us with language to describe things that we take for granted... better yet
they have pictures as well, and an alternative history of art that does not
let you see the history of making in the same way ever again.
From Bernie Herman:
Judy Attfield, Wild Things. Attfield offers an extraordinary perspective on
the relationship between objects and design through the notion of wildness.
Wildness simply is the elusive and ambiguous nature of things in the
construction of meaning--in historical, cultural, and critical contexts. Her
work resonates far beyond her examples.
Francis Ponge, Soap. Ponge dedicates the medium of the "prose poem" to the explication of ordinary objects. In Soap he visits and revisits this humble
object in ways that offer provocative insight into the very nature of things
in their greater generality. The sleight of interpretation that enables us
to realize that soap is an object that diminishes in its actualization
raises questions about how analysis similarly exaggerates and lessens an
object. Unlike the current burst of books about things like salt and
pencils, Ponge's essay reminds us of the poetical and magical aspects of
Lynn Meskell, Object Worlds of Ancient Egypt. Meskell's discussion of the
quality of agency in things is smart and informed. With implications that
range far beyond her immediate topic, Object Worlds provides a cogent
argument for object biographies. The discussion on agency raises the
fundamental question of how objects "act" in/on the contexts they
William Gibson, Count Zero. Gibson's second cyberpunk novel, Count Zero
works from an evocation of Joseph Cornell's constructions in a near future
defined by virtuality and artificial intelligences. Set aside the science
fiction associations and read this work of fiction as a meditation on the
relationships between objects that questions the role that humans play in
the production and consumption of desire and meaning.
David Howes, ed., Empire of the Senses. This is a great collection of essays
that explores the full array of the senses (including proprioception) in the
reception of the material world. Published by Berg, this is one of several
readers that contain both reprinted and original essays that explore the
complex terrain on which we engage materiality through the senses as well as the varied critical positions we bring to writing and interpretation.
From Julian Yates:
George Perec, A Species of Space and other Pieces, trans. John Sturrock (London: Penguin, 1997)
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendell (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002)
Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence Schehr (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005)
William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish 1, 2 and 2A” Res 9, 13, and 16 (1985. 1987 and 1989)
Arjun Appadurai (ed), The Social Life of Things (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)
From Marcy Dinius:
Bill Brown, ed. Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree, eds. New Media: 1740-1915.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.
D. F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Miles Orvell, The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture,1880-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the
Creation of an American Myth. New York: Knopf, 2001.
From Arwen Mohun:
Melvin Kranzberg, “At the Beginning,” Technology and Culture 1 (1959). Mel was the moving force in creating the Society for the History of Technology and its journal, Technology and Culture. This manifesto remains the most concise statement about why the history of technology should be important to all of us.
Donald Kraybill, The Riddle of the Amish. Kraybill’s explanation of how the Amish have“negotiated with modernity” through their choices about technology powerfully argues against technological determinism. He shows how the Amish have made choices about using technology in accordance with their values and, by implication, how everyone else can too.
James Scott, Seeing Like a State explores the history of how technologies of “seeing”—mapping, counting— in the hands of well-intentioned states have created human disasters.
Lerman, Mohun, and Oldenziel, editors, Technology and Culture: A Reader—most everything I know about gender and technology, I learned from working on this book.
Mike Rose, The Mind at Work is an educational sociologist’s thoughtful discussion of the changing nature of low-paid labor and skill.
From Will Scott:
Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste: A theoretical examination of the relationship between objects, practices, and social relations.
Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: The women who populate Enstad’s book are producers and consumers of fashion. It highlights the role of popular culture in constructing desires for objects.
Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style: A brilliant little book that “reads” punk style in 1970s Britain. A must read for those interested in the history of youth culture and fashion.
Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s: Marling treats such subjects as Disneyland, Mamie Eisenhower’s fashion, power tools, and paintby-numbers art with sensitivity and intelligence.
Anne McClintock, “Soft-Soaping Empire: Commodity Racism and Imperial Advertising”: A smart, oft-anthologized essay that demonstrates the cultural importance of one commodity— soap—in the British Empire.
Museum of Modern Art, Machine Art: The catalog accompanying the 1934 exhibition is a pictorial and textual manifesto on behalf of Bauhaus-influenced modernism, which influenced a generation of American designers.
Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework and Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash: UD’s own Strasser examines the material transformation of the American home and the environmental consequences of the proliferation of things in these classics.
Richard Longstreth, City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950: The transformation of vernacular, retail architecture told through images and keen, understated analysis.
Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: First published in 1899, this social satire remains a powerful critique of the use of things for social advancement.
From George Basalla:
Daniel Miller. The Comfort of Things
D. Penney& Dr. Stasny. The Things they Left Behind. This is a book about the abandoned suitcases left in an insane asylum by inmates after their death. Includes photos and biographies of key persons. Very moving.
Deborah Cohn. Household Gods ( The British and their possessions)
Barbara Stafford, an art historian, several books about material culture. Her books are heavy on theory but very good.
John Mack. The Art of Small Things
Pablo Neruda. Ode to Common Things
Roger-Pol Droit. How are Things (philosophy)
Lorraince Daston, ed., Things that Talk. MIT Press. A big book of essays.
Bill Brown. A Sense of Things (American literature & Things)
Sherry Turkle. Evocative Objects. MIT Press.
D.B. Meli. Thinking with Objects
Simon Holloway. Corrugated Iron: Building on the Frontier. Wonderful pictures of corrugated iron buildings around the world.
H.W. Longfellow's long poem Keramos, about the history of pottery and the value of craftsmanship
From Margaret Stetz:
Through the Wardrobe: Women's Relationships with Their Clothes. ed. Ali Guy, et al. Berg, 2001
The Fashion Reader. ed. Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun. Berg, 2007
A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America, by Jenna Weissman Joselit. Henry Holt, 2001.
Clothing as Material Culture. eds. Susanne Kuchler and Daniel Miller. Berg, 2005
Sex and Suits. by Anne Hollander. Kodansha, 1994
These websites offer information of interest to teachers and students in material culture studies. Check back regularly for new additions—and if you’d like to add a favorite site to this list, send the URL and a brief annotation to
The "Picturing America" initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities introduces K-12 students and teachers to forty iconic American images as a way to teach the culture of objects and images in a variety of classrooms including history, politics, social studies, English, science, and art history.
Visual Information Access (VIA) is a growing online union catalogue at Harvard documenting the arts, material culture, and social history.
American Memory (Library of Congress): the starting place for electronically accessing the many incredible things at the Library of Congress beyond books.
Commonplace is a quarterly online journal featuring essays on the stuff of early American
The Peabody Essex Museum offers an amazing collection of things emphasizing the global connectedness of early America
Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing:
A rich resource for all things related to the history of the book and print
The Daguerreian Society site dedicated to "the art, history, and science" of the first form of photography
A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America's Collections
Full Report of the Heritage Health Index (HHI), the first comprehensive survey ever conducted of the conditions and preservation needs of our nation's collections. Conducted by Heritage Preservation in partnership with IMLS, HHI found that immediate action is needed to prevent the loss of millions of irreplaceable artifacts.
Connecting to Collections: A Guide to On Line Resources.
The Guide to Online Resources is a companion to the IMLS Connecting to Collections Bookshelf, a core set of books, DVDs, online resources, and an annotated bibliography that is being distributed free to 2,000 collecting institutions. The Guide contains links to the most trusted collections care resources on the Web. Use it to find answers to common conservation and collections management questions. The Guide to Online Resources is divided into six sections:
Manage a Collection
Manage the Collections Environment
Care for Collections
Prepare for and Respond to Emergencies
Increase Support for Collections Care
Learn More About Collections Care
The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Work--AIC is a national membership organization dedicated to the preservation of cultural material.
Heritage Preservation - HP is the National Institute for Conservation dedicated to preserving our material culture in museums, libraries and private collections.
Institute of Museum and Library Services--IMLS is the primary source of federal support for the nation's 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.
Society for the History of Technology (SHOT)
ECHO (Exploring and Collecting History Online) is a directory to 5,000+ websites concerning the history of science, technology, and industry.
H-Sci-Tech-Med discussion list for the history of science, technology, and medicine.
George Washington: A National Treasure – NPG (good example of an interactive website in material culture)
Metropolitan Museum of Art: Timeline of Art History. MMA exhibition
"Blog.Mode" at http://blog.metmuseum.org/blogmode/
The American Image: The Photographs of John Collier Jr.
Maxwell Museum of Anthropology - the Active Looking (Flickr) and the Propaganda Film maker
National History Clearinghouse (example of a portal site for resources in a discipline)
Objects of History. George Mason’s Center for History and New Media and National Museum of American History
The Lost Museum: Exploring Antebellum Life and Culture
website 3-D re-creation and archive of P. T. Barnum's American Museum
V&A Day of Record – events to document contemporary fashion and design